Last year, IndieCade felt like an ode to the inspired artist. We talked in tiny bubbles about specific games, upcoming instances, or the highest level global trends. We knew we were important, but we still weren’t quite taking ourselves seriously, or maybe we just hadn’t learned how to. We were a jenky, diverse group trying to find cohesion and direction – from the awards ceremony to the conference to the festival floor.
This year, across all levels, that changed. This year, IndieCade wasn’t an ode – it was a call to action. This year indies staked out their place in the collective history of art, technology, expression, and politics. We weren’t just diverse – we were championing diversity, inclusion, and the variety of perspectives necessary to make great works of art. And most importantly, we were reminded that what we were doing isn’t the norm. We are, willingly or unwillingly, revolutionaries.
The critical element was most boldly marked by the three IndieCade keynotes: two discussions between very different but equally vital forefathers of our industry, and an overarching history lesson of the people responsible for our current, humble movement.
John Romero interviewed Steve Russell, who coded the first ever shmup, Spacewar, on a PDP-1 in 1962. Listening to Steve Russell talk about punch cards, sine algorithms, and 1 KB memory was a valuable lesson for the greener indies at the conference: we didn’t emerge from nothing, and we don’t exist in a void. We have a rich and powerful history.
Eric Zimmerman interviewed Bernie DeKoven (whom I recognized as Mr. Fun), one of the founders of the New Games Movement in the sixties and author of The Well-Played Game, a piece on the philosophy and psychology of playing and game-playing. Bernie talked about the inherent paradox we all work within: the difference between play – driven by autonomy, curiosity, exploration – and game-playing – fueled by strategy, determination, rules. He showed the power of putting play into the player’s hands – by making us all improvise a performance variant of rock paper scissors. He proved that while the trend today is towards giving players a line of cookies and hoping they follow it – that’s really nothing near the underlying psychology of play.
Finally, Mary Flanagan gave an impressive quick-hit history lesson of 7 phenomenal people who in one way or another had a powerful effect on our industry. Starting with Joseph Marie Jacquard, who created the first punch-card-reading machine (a loom for art) and ending in fact with Steve Russell and Bernie DeKoven. She made a point of including the queer, the technological, the artsy, the revolutionary. This is our history to own.
Many other talks contributed to this sense of elevating indie games: giving them a history, giving them a vocabulary to analyze and reflect upon themselves. Bennet Foddy discussed the power of pain (challenge, frustration, difficulty) and its addictive and necessary qualities for engagement. A brilliant panel including Amy Hennig, Jenova Chen, Ian Dallas, and Dan Pinchbeck went deep into the philosophy and trial and error of experiential games, echoing much of Bernie’s philosophy on the play element in games.
At the end of a year marked by appalling sexism, unsafe conferences, and unbelievable affronts to women’s rights, IndieCade felt like a haven. This isn’t coincidental. It was purposeful and apparent that the organizers supported a safe space, and that those who showed were invested in maintaining it. There were women on every panel, audiences that weren’t the typical 90/10 m/f split. There were people of color, transgender speakers, participants that IndieCade sponsored because they didn’t have the finances to go on their own dime. This IndieCade was about voices being heard, and those voices had so much to offer.
Anna Anthropy was at the forefront, making the entire audience repeat: queer games are important. Queer games are important. For so long it’s been the same people making games for themselves – the same straight white male perspective being shipped to a world of different people. Queer games – used more broadly than just games with LGBT themes – diversify and enrich the dazzling sphere that is indie games. Queer games are important. New voices are important. Different voices are important.
Mattie Brice interviewed Christine Love about Analogue: A Hate Story – a proudly feminist game that used an empathic approach to creating realistic characters that illustrate, if not comment on, women’s issues. Celia Pearce joined Akira Thompson, Megan Gaiser and Anna to discuss diversity and inclusion in the industry. Megan passionately declared that we not only have the ability, but the responsibility to take action. We need to create safe spaces. We need to amplify voices too often talked over, silenced, or ignored. We need to embrace, encourage, and embody diversity.
And we did. We are. This is our community, and we’ve created an inspiring kaleidoscope of invaluable viewpoints, varied perspectives, and powerful histories.
Bernie DeKoven said, of the sixties, that all play was revolutionary. Playing, in public spaces – in public spaces together – was subversive, subtly defiant, even dangerous. To play is to toy with systems, to learn cause and effect, to understand. Play implies agency and autonomy, the capacity to act and affect outcomes. It is the ability to make change.
Johannes Grenzfurthner and Molleindustrias’ Paolo Pedercini said play, and games, continue to be tools of the revolution. They are seductive, persuasive, and powerful. They are not instrumental to change, but inherently transformative. It is the nature of a game to change a player.
The question then became: what are you changing? How are you using this power? What are you saying with your voice? – because we all have one now, because game making has reached the commons, because anyone with any will now has a way.
Don’t just do the same. Don’t be derivative. Don’t create selfishly. Create for the future, for the community, for the unheard or ignored. Create with intent. Create to change something, to be someone, to make a difference. We’re all of us capable now.
We’re all of us responsible now.
It was a weekend of empowerment. We learned the past, glimpsed the future, and celebrated the present. To all those who shared the weekend with me, and moreso those who made it possible: